Column: One mistake and you’re out

This one was a doozy; feedback was both loud and intriguing. TV5’s new media-issues show Journo ran a comprehensive report on the entire Mai Mislang fiasco and its aftermath. Published on November 2, 2010.

Mistakes are inevitable in the practice of journalism. With the sheer amount of information that must be processed in preparing a newspaper or producing a newscast or publishing a website, it is almost impossible to get everything right: to make sure that every spelling is correct, every detail double-checked, every fact verified.

This is not to say that accuracy is an irrelevant principle; indeed, it is of paramount importance precisely because it is a difficult ideal.

To use the old formula: It is the responsibility of journalists to get all the facts right and all the right facts. But because of the press of deadline, the circumstances of
reporting, the biased nature of information itself, it is almost impossible to
discharge this responsibility all the time.

Journalists make up for this by correcting errors in fact or interpretation as soon as they are discovered or proven, by keeping an open line with their audience of readers and viewers and listeners and users, above all by relying on the sorting-out
process that journalism itself makes possible.

The case of NBN-ZTE whistleblower Jun Lozada is a good example: It took several days before the true nature of his character became clear in the public mind. (I invite anyone to reread the first news reports and analytical columns on Lozada when he first emerged in the public spotlight in February 2008; it makes for an instructive exercise in opinion-making.)

I raise all this now because of the Unfortunate Case of the Wine that Sucked, and the unexpected vehemence of the opinion of many journalists, much of it expressed informally through various online social networks, against the offending member of President Aquino’s delegation to Vietnam.

Assistant Secretary Carmen Mislang had the bad form to tweet her opinion on the quality of the wine served at an ASEAN function hosted by Vietnam. “Wine sucks,” she sent a message on the online network Twitter, apparently in response to a question from her boss, Secretary Ricky Carandang. (She had two other unfortunate tweets, as this new form of communication is called, but it was the comment on the wine that had many journalists all atwitter.)

My comments, I wish to make clear, are not directed at the many non-journalists who responded negatively to the offending tweet online; only at my colleagues who, like me, labor in an error-prone profession.

One journalist whose work I admire said Mislang should have resigned—as though the offense had led to a major diplomatic crisis. I don’t think I am being inaccurate when I say this journalist’s opinion was widely shared. Mislang has since apologized, and apparently the offending tweets have been removed. But I still see the occasional comment, tsk-tsking the blunder and asking for the blunderer’s head.

When, I would like to know, did my profession adopt the one-strike policy? There is no question that Mislang’s tweets were bad diplomacy, but when did it reach the level of official policy, serious enough to merit expulsion from government? Mislang, whom I do not know from Eve, is not in the foreign service, where her kind of jejune comment would have had severe implications for her career; granted, she works for President Aquino’s communications group, where the cardinal rule ought to be not to become news. Perhaps the appropriate sanction would have been a reprimand, and a decision to leave her out of official delegations in the future. But resignation? For expressing an opinion that the host government did not consider offensive?

If that level of accountability were applied to journalists, who would be left to report on offending tweets a year from now?

I realize that the roots of Mislang’s case run deeper than an official’s lapse in judgment. The evolving nature of online social networks is a source of concern; only several months ago, journalists I follow online were debating whether it was necessary to ask permission from an online poster (that is, someone who has posted a message online) before reporting on the post; today, I don’t see any sign of that debate anymore. Has that particular ethical issue been resolved, or has the
growth in the use of Facebook and the like simply overtaken it?

The evolving relationship between the Aquino administration and the journalists who cover it (and of course I need to include myself in this category, as an opinion writer) is also another source of concern. I seem to sense a lower threshold for spin; that’s undoubtedly a good thing, because the public’s need for the best obtainable version of the truth (to use Carl Bernstein’s formula) is best served that way. But I also seem to sense a greater impatience with the administration, and a
greater unwillingness on the part of quite a number of journalists to give the
administration what we in the media expect our audience to give us on a daily
basis: the benefit of the doubt.

I cannot quite put my finger on it yet, but I think that the situation four months into the Arroyo administration (that is to say, around May 2001, after the failed assault on Malacañang led by the likes of JV Ejercito and goaded by the fiery rhetoric of the likes of Miriam Defensor-Santiago) was very different from and much more favorable than the media situation facing the Aquino administration now.

Perhaps it was because there was a real sense of danger to the state back then, and now there is only. . . some group hiding behind the anonymity of paid ads? Or perhaps it is because greater distrust in the government, no matter how popular, is yet another lasting legacy of the Arroyo years?

Journalists can help find the answers, but first we need a greater sense of proportion.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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